RA Diaries: Feats of strength

hands I’ve never been into sports.

Partly, this is because I’m female, and girls and women, at least where I grew up (Mexico and Italy) weren’t really encouraged to be fans of sports like football or baseball, much less play them. When I moved to the United States as a teenager, my high school had girls’ teams for track and swimming, but the boys’ teams were still the ones who were lionized.

Senior year, I belonged to a service club whose members were supposed to bake cookies for male athletes on game day. The year I joined, several members with a feminist bent insisted we also do it for the girls’ teams. That caused quite a stir, and many members didn’t want to do it, since part of the appeal of baking was flirting with that cute water polo player.

But a bigger reason for my disinterest was that I got rheumatoid arthritis while barely in elementary school. The disabled joints and constant fatigue that came with that diagnosis meant I could never excel at most team sports. I also had to worry about injuries, since hurting one joint usually meant the one on the other side would be affected. This made me highly unpopular in gym class, and I was always last to be picked for anything.

Swimming was the exception, but few schools I attended included a swim unit in PE. Still, I was able to swim sometimes after school, so I’ve always been fond of that particular sport. I also loved diving, though I’ve only ever jumped off the high board feet first.

I always loved gymnastics, though I learned early there was no point in my ever pursuing that. But my admiration for swimmers and divers and gymnasts has never waned, and I always try to catch those events when the Summer Olympics roll around. It seems so unfair that there aren’t franchises of such sports, the way there are for hockey or basketball. I’d watch the Buffalo Bendables compete against the LA Leapers any day.

But this past week, I got to indulge my love for all things gym and swim oriented, with the bonus of art. A close relative had a big birthday, so we took her to Las Vegas to celebrate. The area was having a heat wave, and it was too warm to be outside even at 10 p.m., so we spent most of our time in the big air-conditioned hotels.

We got tickets for “Le Reve” at the Wynn. The show takes place mostly in a huge round swimming pool, and involves not only lots of diving but also tons of gymnastics and acrobatics, which are even more impressive considering the slippery medium. “Le Reve” isn’t the Strip’s only water show. There’s also “O,” by Cirque Du Soleil. Apparently, the same guy came up with the concept for both shows, though “Le Reve” is not a Cirque show.

I loved it. Though the plot was practically nonexistent – girl meets boy, is unsure if she should sleep with him, decides to sleep on it, has weird dream – everything else was impressive. But the ever-moving sets, the lights, the costumes and the music were nothing compared to the incredible feats of agility and strength performed in that tank. Or in the air – there was so much trapeze work, with performers holding each other by one hand, or by the foot, throwing each other back and forth. I worried constantly that someone would slip and fall. I’ve done enough belly smacks in pools to appreciate how much water can hurt, and you can easily break your neck by falling wrong.

I was most impressed by the women. On average, women are supposed to have less upper body strength than men, but these performers were exceptional. They carried other women. They carried men. They hung on to metal handles as they flew up in the air. And they let go at high altitude without flinching.

And I admit, even as I watched and gasped and I admired, that I suddenly felt really sad. I wished that I hadn’t gotten ill so young, and limited so young. What if I could have trained my body to do something like that? Or, to be realistic, because I know most people can’t do that, something even remotely close to that?

What must it be like to fly through the air like that, or to hold up your weight with just one arm? What must it be like to dive into cool blue water with such precision?

The body, when not cruelly deprived by disease, can do amazing things. When I see shows like “Le Reve” I finally understand why athletes are so admired in our society, and why they can make people like me feel so inadequate.

I don’t usually think about such things. I usually try to focus on what I can do, and that list is surprisingly long. I have pushed my mind further than many people. But sometimes, I’d give it all up for the ability to do a perfect dive, or a backflip. Or being able to hang on to a trapeze.

All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.

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